A perfect storm is gathering to end the prohibition against marijuana in the United States . Economic, generational, and technological forces have combined with new views from the public and powerful opinion makers to create an unprecedented climate for the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana.

Storm clouds are brewing from all segments of society to upend the “reefer madness” fear and misconceptions that have dictated U.S. drug policy for decades. The upheaval begins with the economy, but doesn’t end there. As Bob Dylan noted long ago, "You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Here’s a review of the pressures bearing down on the prohibitionists.

It’s the economy, stupid

With the country in an economic meltdown similar to the Great Depression, an increasing number of citizens are questioning the cost of the drug war. Billions of dollars have been spent on law enforcement and imprisonment since 1970. (1) More than 20 million citizens have been arrested for cannabis-related charges, including 90 per cent for possession. Marijuana-related arrests continue at the alarming rate of more than 900,000 a year.

In 2005, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron published a report showing that legalization would save $7.7 billion each year on enforcement, while generating as much as $6.2 billion in taxes.(2) Untaxed and unregulated marijuana is America ’s largest cash crop, more valuable than corn and wheat combined, according to DrugScience.org. Americans spend $39 billion a year on domestically grown marijuana. California Representative Tom Ammiano estimates that his recently introduced bill to legalize pot would generate $1.4 billion a year in tax revenue. (3)

Users reach a critical mass

Weaned on Cheech and Chong and Zap! Comics, Baby Boomers began a telling generational change that has exploded with two subsequent generations of users, accustomed to routine marijuana references throughout the mainstream popular culture. The population trends will continue to heavily favor legalization. In 10 years, demographers have predicted a “super majority” for legalization. (4)

Stoner age goes high tech

The internet has been an impetus behind the growing momentum for change. Social networking sites have provided like-minded people in virtual communities convenient vehicles for sharing their ideas and organizing movements. The Facebook page for NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) counted 600,000 “friends” in April; a MySpace community focused on NORML adds another 74,000 people. The internet has united reform efforts from coast to coast with a few clicks on a keyboard. (5)

Ex-cops speak out

One of the strongest headwinds for change is coming from a surprising source: the law enforcement community. Jack Cole, a 12-year former New Jersey undercover narcotics officer, founded Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) in 2002. The organization ,made up of former law enforcement personnel, has grown to 12,000 members, says Cole. “This war has been an exercise in futility. In 1970, about two percent of the population over the age of 12 had at some point used an illegal drug. As of 2003, the number stood at 46 per cent-an increase of 2,300 per cent. Yet, we’ve spent more than $1 trillion dollars and imprisoned more people per capita than any country in the free world for the purpose of reducing drug use.” (6)

People pushing reform

If the public gets the final say in a democracy, legalization is only a matter of time. Polls are indicating a groundswell of support. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post Poll, 46 per cent of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana for personal use, double the level of support 12 years ago and the highest reading since the mid-1980s. While 52 per cent remain opposed, that’s down from 75 per cent in the late 1990s and 78 per cent in 1986. Support for legalization among Democrats and Independents stands at 49 and 53 per cent, respectively, an increase of 29 and 27 per cent over the past two decades. (7)

The media and, more important, the mainstream media pundits, are jumping on the legalization bandwagon. Writing in the April 2,2009 issue of Time, Joe Klein titled his op.ed, “Why legalizing Marijuana Makes Sense.”

In the past few days, leading commentators such as David Sirota (The Nation), Kathleen Parker (The Washington Post), Paul Jacob (TownHall), Hendrik Hertzberg (The New Yorker), Andrew Sullivan (The Atlantic), Debra Saunders (The San Francisco Chronicle), Leonard Pitts (The Miami Herald), John Richardson (Esquire) and Margery Eagan (Boston Herald) have written in favor of regulating and taxing of cannabis.

Obama may be on board

Bill Clinton may not have inhaled, but Barak Obama certainly did. The new president admitted during his campaign that he once was a heavy marijuana user. In fact, during one of the presidential debates, Obama-demonstrating a strong appeal to his large young voting base-said, “I inhaled frequently…wasn’t that the point of it?”

Despite reflexive giggles from the White House on the idea of regulating the sale and consumption of cannabis for adults, Obama realizes that for many of his followers the end of prohibition is no longer a laughing matter. Obama is intelligent and pragmatic. He knows his base of voters and he will not be standing on the wrong side of history.

Marijuana is a plant

In addition to the economic, generational and technological influences at work, nature remains a powerful force in this perfect storm I’ve described. Marijuana can be grown outdoors or indoors; it is easily cultivated with minimal processing. Harvested in all 50 states, it simply is too pervasive to be eradicated and the public appetite for its use -- either medically or recreationally -- is as old as the plant itself.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States . The number of users in 2007 was 25.1 million (10.1% of population ages 12 or older). Four million Americans (5.8% of the population) use marijuana every month.

Thirteen states with a combined population of 115 million have decriminalized cannabis possession; 13 states with an aggregate population of 75 million now have medical marijuana laws.(8)

Prohibition causes violence

The escalation in violence among the Mexican drug cartels has further forced a reexamination of U.S. drug policy. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently returned from Mexico where talks about the illegal marijuana trade were at the top of their agendas. The talks resulted in a pledge of an additional $700 million to curtail the cartels. Could legalization be the easiest solution? Americans have a strong demand for Mexican beer and tequila, but there are no Mexican beer or tequila cartels because these products are legal.


Certainly, the legalization of marijuana would have to be tempered by age restrictions and other regulations. But, the economic impact of thousands of new jobs in agriculture, packaging, marketing, and advertising could turn such a development into a marijuana stimulus package -- an ideal and worthy result of the perfect storm.

Don Ruben has practiced criminal law for more than 30 years in state and federal courts. He has served on the Ethics and Discipline Committee of the Columbus (Ohio) Bar Association and is active in several community organizations.Ruben graduated from Middlebury College and the University of Cincinnati College of Law. Before entering private practice, he served as an assisstant attorney general and an assistant county prosecutor.

Footnotes: 1) www.NORML.com, March 17, 2009; 2) The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition by Jeffrey Miron are found at www.MPP.org, 2009; 3) USAToday, May 6,2009 @ Pg. 3A, & Drug Policy Alliance.org [02/25/09] ); 4) Alan St. Pierre’s essay for NPR’s All Things Considered, 4/20/09. St. Pierre is executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; 5) www.NORML.org; 6) (www.leap.cc )[May 6,2009]; 7) www.commonsensedrugpolicy.org; www.drugwarfacts.org; www.prohibitioncosts.org; 8) www.norml.org; www.drugpolicyalliance.org; www.prohibitioncosts.org; www.drugwarfacts.org